If you've ever had traditionally made carbonara, the chewy, salty bites of meat in your pasta were likely guanciale. This product is aptly named after the word guancia, which means "cheek" in Italian, as it comes from the cheek of a pig. Amidst the other creamy ingredients in a simple carbonara (like the eggs, butter, pasta, and cheese), guanciale provides a welcome bite of texture, although it's still pretty soft overall. And since the pasta is fairly mildly flavored as a whole, the saltiness in this particular meat is what makes it stand out.
All that said, there's no getting around the fact that guanciale can be on the expensive side. You'll often find it shipped in from Italy, although imports of the specialty bacon product were banned for a while by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), making it even harder to find in the States. If you're looking for a more affordable, easily accessible option in the U.S., pancetta can absolutely work as a substitute. You won't get the most traditional version of the dish, of course, but you will get similar flavors and textures. Pancetta is salty and fatty, and has a bite to it that will pop amidst your rich pasta.
How Are Guanciale And Pancetta Different?
So, if guanciale is pig cheek, how does pancetta compare? The latter comes from the same animal, but from the belly instead. Guanciale is typically cured in seasonings (including garlic and rosemary) and aged, while pancetta is usually cured with a salt brine, then seasoned and potentially smoked. This means there are plenty of similar flavors here, as we mentioned, but a few small differences as well. Guanciale is a prized meat in carbonara because of its high fat content, which creates rich tastes and textures. Pancetta is leaner, meaning you lose a bit of the flavor.
However, once the two meats are chopped up and added into carbonara, the differences are subtle enough that you will likely still be satisfied with a pancetta substitution. The swap has been done many times, so you're in good hands. In fact, celebrity chef Giada de Laurentiis recommends it for pasta alla gricia, a dish similar to carbonara. If pancetta is all you can find (or afford) at the grocery store, go ahead and use it. You'll want to first chop it, unlike with guanciale which is usually cut into strips. Then fry your meat in a little butter and garlic for about five minutes, and build out your pasta in the pan from there.
Read the original article on Tasting Table.